Road to Atlanta

The Florida Gators men’s basketball team (26-7) was rewarded with a three seed in the South bracket of the NCAA tournament. This is the fourth straight season the Gators have made the tournament and they have reached the elite eight in back-to-back seasons.

A win over Ole Miss in the SEC Championship Game today could have vaulted Florida into a two-seed but as many wise men have said before me: it is what it is.

The Gators were lucky to not end up in the Midwest region, which appears to be the toughest to come out of. Louisville, Duke, Michigan State, St. Louis, Oklahoma State and Oregon comprise one powerful region.

Instead, the Gators drew the South region where they will play on Friday in Austin, Texas against Northwestern State (23-8).

The Demons are the nations No. 1 ranked scoring team (81.0 points per game) and like to play an up-tempo style of basketball. When you play that fast paced style of offense, it’s hard to get back on defense. The Demons rank 291st nationally on defense giving up an average of 71.2 points per game, although they do average 9.8 steals per game, fourth best in the nation.

Like Florida, Northwestern State doesn’t have one player that stands out offensively. The leading scorer for the Demons is DeQuan Hicks (14.1 ppg) but is followed closely by Shamir Davis (12.5 ppg) and James Hublin (12.1 ppg).

The Demons have played three SEC teams this season (Texas A&M, LSU, Arkansas), losing all three games by an average of 12.7 points per game.

Billy Donovan’s club should be able to handle the Demon’s fast-paced offense and advance to the third round. Scottie Wilbekin, Mike Rosario and Kenny Boynton should excel in transition and Florida can also slow the game down and get Pat Young involved down in the post.

Overall, Florida should be able to cruise through their second round game and advance to the third round of the competition.

This is where our “Road to Atlanta” story delves into the unknown. In March anything can happen. You only need one player to go off and an upset can happen in any game.

Should they advance, Florida is set to face the winner of 6-seed UCLA and 11-seed Minnesota. UCLA lost Jordan Adams to a broken foot in their Pac-12 semi-final victory. Adams was second on the team in scoring, averaging 15.3 points per game. The loss of Adams will lead to the Bruins being upset by Tubby Smith’s Gophers. Senior forward, Trevor Mbakwe, is the leader of Smith’s club. Mbakwe is rebounding machine, averaging 8.7 boards a game. As a team, Minnesota is averaging 38.8 rebounds a game and out-rebounding teams by 8.2 boards a game.

This could present a problem for Florida. The Gators are ranked 45th in the country in rebounding margin (+4.7) but will need big games from Pat Young, Will Yeguete and Eric Murphy on the boards.

Playing in Florida’s favor is Minnesota’s 3-point defense. Minnesota comes in ranked No. 189 in the country, allowing opponents to shoot 33.9% from behind the arc. Florida is ranked No. 28 in the country, shooting 38.2% from three on the season.

Florida has played a “live by the three, die by the three” style of basketball this season. With Minnesota struggling to defend the three, this is another matchup that Florida will be favored in and a matchup they should win. A win here sends Florida to the Sweet Sixteen.

To find Florida’s next opponent we need to do some more projecting. I don’t want to give away too much of my bracket, in case you all are joining us in the GatorCountry bracket challenge but, I have Georgetown beating Florida Gulf Coast University and San Diego State leading into their re-match with Florida.

Florida and Georgetown played earlier in the year, sort of, and this would be a nice way to pick up where they left off in back in November.  The first matchup was played on the USS Bataan in Jacksonville, Florida. Florida led the game 27-23 at half but when the players came out to start the second half, too much moisture had built up on the court and the surface was deemed too dangerous to continue playing on.

You can’t talk about Georgetown without starting with Otto Porter Jr. Porter is leading the team in scoring (16.3 ppg) and third on the team in assists with 81. Porter is a dynamic player who presents a challenge to whoever is guarding him. Georgetown has three main scoring options, Porter, Markel Starks and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera.

Florida is the third-ranked team in the country when it comes to defensive field goal percentage, allowing opponents to make just 37.3% of their shot attempts.

This is a close matchup of two very talented defensive teams but Florida has the players to limit what Georgetown can do offensively and could earn a berth to the elite eight with a win over Georgetown.

We enter another area of speculation to find Florida’s next opponent. Kansas should cruise through their second round matchup against Western Kentucky and win a close game against the winner of North Carolina vs. Villanova in the third round. VCU should waltz past Akron before being taken down by Michigan. Michigan won’t be able to top Kansas and that sets up a 1-seed vs. 3-seed in the south region final.

Kansas has been one of the most impressive teams in the country and very deserving of their No. 2 overall seeding. This presents the toughest matchup for Florida and the Gators are likely to be an underdog heading into the game.

Kansas is led by Ben McLemore, one of the most talented freshmen in the country, who is leading the Jayhawks in points per game (16.4) and is the most accurate three-point shooter on the team.

Elijah Johnson is rounding into form and playing his best basketball at the right time of the season. Jeff Withey will give Pat Young a test down low. The seven-footer is averaging 8.4 rebounds and 13.6 points per game.

Florida will need to bring their “A” game if they want to beat Kansas. The Gators rank first nationally in scoring margin (+18.8) and third in scoring defense (53.2 ppg). They will need to play solid defense, take care of the basketball and use ball movement to create open looks for their shooters.

That sounds easy enough, right?

One thing is for sure. The Gators are as experienced as any team in the country heading into the tournament. Players like Kenny Boyton, Eric Murphy, Pat Young, Will Yeguete, Scottie Wilbekin and Casey Prather have been to back-to-back elite eights and have a great opportunity to go even further this season.

The road won’t be easy, but Florida has the talent, the coach and the experience to make a deep run this March and could find themselves as one of the final four teams still playing basketball when the games move to the Georgia Dome.

Nick de la Torre
A South Florida native, Nick developed a passion for all things sports at a very young age. His love for baseball was solidified when he saw Al Leiter’s no-hitter for the Marlins live in May of 1996. He was able to play baseball in college but quickly realized there isn’t much of a market for short, slow outfielders that hit around the Mendoza line. Wanting to continue with sports in some capacity he studied journalism at the University of Central Florida. Nick got his first start in the business as an intern for a website covering all things related to the NFL draft before spending two seasons covering the Florida football team at Bleacher Report. That job led him to GatorCountry. When he isn’t covering Gator sports, Nick enjoys hitting way too many shots on the golf course, attempting to keep up with his favorite t.v. shows and watching the Heat, Dolphins and Marlins. Follow him on twitter @NickdelatorreGC